Fee hike blocks access

A major fee hike proposed for Victoria’s main dispute resolution forum could bar Latrobe Valley residents from contesting planning decisions by mining companies and local governments.

The increases in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, proposed by the Victorian Department of Justice in December, could see fees for ‘mum and dad’ applicants rise beyond affordability, attracting harsh criticism from local activist groups.

Under the proposal, planning dispute fees would jump from $322 to $1000, and daily hearing fees soar from $370 to $1800, according to a briefing by the Environmental Defenders Office.

Local landholder rights activist group Community Over Mining, lead by Toongabbie’s Tracey Anton, said the fee proposal “smacked of cronyism”, and would prevent access by many concerned residents contesting the advancement of mining activity in Gippsland.

“Our only recourse (against mining licence applications) is to object the granting of licences or authorisations, and if unsuccessful, appeal to VCAT,” she said.

“The government has failed to deliver on the most basics of protective guidelines (for landholders against mining) but, most importantly, has chosen to make it even harder for communities to hold government decisions to account.”

Suzie Kent, from the Friends of the Gippsland Bush, has fought numerous battles in VCAT over the past decade, and said the “substantial” impact of fee increases would surely price grass roots activists out of the VCAT process.

“The tribunal was established to provide cheaper quicker access and efficiency than the courts,” Ms Zent wrote in a submission against the proposal.

“Many leading decisions made at the tribunal arise from cases prosecuted by individuals, community groups and non-government organisations, who are acting in the wider public interest.

“Although (some of our) hearings did not necessarily go in favour of the cases we presented (against Latrobe City Council) it still allowed for a degree of transparency and accountability in decision making processes, which would otherwise not have been open to public scrutiny.”